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California reaches reform deal with police condemned over deadly force

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Show caption Bakersfield is in Kern county, which a Guardian investigation found to be the country’s deadliest for police shootings in 2015. Photograph: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images US policing California reaches reform deal with police condemned over deadly force Reforms to be implemented six years after Guardian investigation found Kern county to be America’s deadliest for police killings Oliver Laughland @oliverlaughland Tue 24 Aug 2021 02.02 BST Share on Facebook

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California’s justice department has announced a court-enforced reform settlement with the Bakersfield police department, following a years-long state civil rights inquiry initiated after a 2015 Guardian investigation found that police in the state’s Kern county were the deadliest in America.

The settlement, known as a stipulated judgment or “consent decree”, was announced on Monday by the California attorney general, Rob Bonta, more than four years after the department commenced its investigation, and requires the police department to revise and reform its policies, overseen by an independent monitor.

The California justice department concluded that Bakersfield police “failed to uniformly and adequately enforce the law, in part because of defective or inadequate policies, practices, and procedures”. It noted that police had engaged in unreasonable use of force and fatal force, as well as unreasonable stops, searches and arrests.

The consent decree requires the department to revise its use-of-force guidance to focus its officers on de-escalation and proportionality; strengthen its use-of-force training for officers; strengthen investigations into officers’ use of force; and modify the use and training of police dogs.

Bonta labelled the court-enforced reforms as “both needed and necessary”.

In a statement, he said: “For Californians who are hurting, trust will not come back overnight – and we cannot afford to be complacent. We must continue to engage and stay on task. Justice demands it.”

The five-part Guardian investigation into Bakersfield police department and the Kern county sheriff’s office – the two largest law enforcement agencies in the county – revealed that the two departments had killed people at a higher rate than police in any other county in America during 2015 and unearthed a culture of violence, corruption and impunity within the agencies.

It was revealed that a number of officers had been involved in multiple fatal shootings over the years, that the majority of investigators examining police killings in the county were former department officers, and that the Kern county sheriff’s office had made multiple cash payments – sometimes as low as $200 – to women who had been sexually assaulted by it officers in order to buy their silence.

In December 2020 the Kern county sheriff’s office entered into a similar consent decree with the California DoJ, following a civil rights investigation that uncovered similar widespread failures in the department.

On Monday, attorneys working with police reform advocates in Bakersfield, including victims of fatal police violence in the city, welcomed the settlement but argued it fell short in a number of areas.

Stephanie Padilla, a staff attorney with ACLU Southern California, said: “We are glad that the state department of justice recognizes there are systemic problems with the Bakersfield police department. But this stipulated judgment doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“It will not, on its own, eliminate deeply harmful practices such as the use of canine force or discriminatory traffic stops for excessive force and intimidation, especially on Black and brown community members.”

Last week, the ACLU released an updated report that built on findings from a 2017 investigation that exposed evidence of continued excessive force by the two departments.

The new report found that Bakersfield PD had continued to use excessive force and pointed specifically to police canine attacks on unarmed people and fatal force incidents, which both continued at similar rates to when the California DoJ commenced its investigation and disproportionately affected Black and brown residents of the city.

“Unfortunately, over the past four years, BPD has maintained these same troubling practices, even as it has been under investigation by the California department of justice for civil rights violations,” the report concluded.

The consent decree does not equate to an admission of wrongdoing from the Bakersfield police department, and the judgment states the department continued to “deny each and every allegation” made by the state civil rights inquiry.

In a statement, the department’s chief, Greg Terry, said the city had agreed to the settlement “after much deliberation”.

“The decision came down to a choice between litigating the past or controlling our future, reassuring our community, and moving forward in a positive way,” Terry said.